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Teacher Tom: Our Catastrophic Imaginations
"Awhile back, I was watching a boy playing around under the swings as a classmate was swinging. It wasn't a particularly risky activity in my view. I mean, I was standing right there, taking pictures, discussing it with him, and it didn't set off any alarm bells for me in the moment, although after the fact, while going through the photos, it occurred to me that it was something that would be scuttled in other settings. My lack of concern probably stems from the fact that it's far from the first time this sort of thing has happened:

In fact, I think what caught my attention about it was that it was the first time I'd seen a kid do more than just lie there giggling. Of course, many schools have removed their swings altogether, so maybe the very existence of swings is shocking to some.

I imagine that in some dystopian future we'll become notorious for being the only school left with a swing set, let alone for not having a set of rules about how the kids can use them. That's because, in our six years with swings, since our move to the Center of the Universe, we've not found a need for safety rules, because the kids, the ones that live in the world outside our catastrophic imaginations, haven't shown a particular propensity to hurt themselves or one another.

Oh sure they get hurt like all kids do, like all people, but most of the injuries don't come from what people call "risky play," but rather from day-to-day activities, things you would think children had mastered. For instance, the worst injury we've seen during my 16 year tenure at Woodland Park came when a boy fell on his chin while walking on a flat, dry, linoleum floor. He needed a couple stitches. Another boy wound up with stitches when he fell while walking in the sandpit.

Increasingly, I find myself bristling when I hear folks talk about "risky play," even when it's framed positively. From my experience, this sort of play is objectively not risky, in the sense that those activities like swinging or climbing or playing with long sticks, those things that tend to wear the label of "risky" are more properly viewed as "safety play," because that's exactly what the kids are doing: practicing keeping themselves and others safe. It's almost as if they are engaging in their own, self-correcting safety drills.

When a group of four and five year olds load up the pallet swing with junk, then work together to wind it up higher and higher, then, on the count of three, let it go, ducking away as they do it, creating distance between themselves and this rapidly spinning flat of wood that they've learned is libel to release it's contents in random directions, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. They don't need adults there telling them to "be careful" or to impose rules based on our fears because those things are so manifestly necessary to this sort of thing that they are an unspoken part of the play.

When children wrestle they are practicing caring for themselves and their friends.

When preschoolers are provided with carving tools and a pumpkin they automatically include their own safety and that of others into their play. Adult warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly risky behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adults can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation of self-doubt.

The truth is that they already are being careful. The instinct for self-preservation is quite strong in humans. It's a pity that we feel we must teach them to live within our catastrophic imaginations."
tomhobson  children  risk  play  risktaking  safety  sfsh  experimentation  2017  schools  swings  playgrounds  injury  care  caring  wrestling  carefulness 
november 2017 by robertogreco
Teacher Tom: "But How Do They Learn To Read?"
""But how do they learn to read?"

It's the question most often asked by doubters when first learning about play-based education. Most people "get" that play is important for young children, at least to a certain degree, they're not ogres, but they just can't get their minds around the idea that most children, when left to their own devices, will actually learn to read without adult intervention.

First of all, from a purely developmental perspective, preschool aged children should not be expected to be reading. This isn't to say that some preschoolers don't teach themselves to read. I've known readers as young as two. And at any given moment, there will be a handful of four and five-year-olds at Woodland Park who are reading books on their own because that's how human development works: some children start speaking at three months and some barely utter a word until after they've celebrated their fourth birthday; some are walking by six months and some aren't up on their feet until they're closer to two. Parents might worry, but the truth is that it all falls well within the range of "normal." The research on reading indicates that the natural window for learning to read extends to as late as 11 years old!

Of course, in today's America, a child who is not reading by the time he is seven or eight is thought to have some sort of learning disability when the fact is that he is perfectly normal. A couple years back a University of Cambridge team reviewed all the available research on the topic and concluded that "formal" schooling should be delayed until children are at least seven, and that, indeed, pushing it earlier is damaging children's "academic" achievement, especially when it comes to reading.
Studies have compared groups of children . . . who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7 . . . (T)he early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children's reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who stared at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.

Their recommendation is that the best "academic" education for children under seven is the sort of "informal, play-based" environment we offer at Woodland Park because that is how the human animal is designed to build the foundation for all future learning.

The sickening thing is that today's kindergartens and preschools are charging pell-mell in the wrong direction:
A new University of Virginia study found that kindergarten changed in disturbing ways from 1999-2006. There was a marked decline in exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education and an increased emphasis on reading instruction. Teachers reported spending as much time on reading as all other subjects combined.

With the advent of the Common Core federal public school curriculum in the US (and it is a curriculum despite it's advocates' insistence that they are merely "standards") with its narrow focus on literacy, mathematics, and testing, it has gotten even worse since 2006. Indeed:
Last year, average math scores . . . declined; reading scores were flat or decreased compared with a decade earlier.

We are proving the research: we are damaging our children. This is why I remain so consistently opposed to what is happening in our public schools. By law I'm a mandatory reporter of child abuse in my state. This might not fit the legal definition, but it definitely fits the moral one.

That still begs the original question: how will they learn to read?

As I learned from Carol Black's brilliant essay entitled A Thousand Rivers, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439, very few people could read. In fact, reading was primarily the domain of the clergy who needed the skill to read and create Bibles. But the printing press suddenly made printed matter widely available. With no notion of formal literacy education, Europeans were left to learn to read on their own, passing on the knowledge from one person to the next, from one generation to the next.

Literacy rates steadily climbed for the next couple hundred years, then surged around the time of the American Revolution when Thomas Payne's pamphlet Common Sense became a runaway hit, selling over a half million copies and going through 25 printings in its first year. It's estimated that 2.5 million colonists read it, an astronomical number for the time. And it's not easy reading. Nevertheless, historians credit this viral document with inspiring the 13 American colonies to ultimately declare their independence from British rule.

People wanted to read, they needed to read, so they learned to read, which is why literacy rates in those original 13 colonies were actually higher than those we see today in in our 50 states. A similar thing has happened, albeit at a faster pace, with computer technology. I have a distinct memory of Dad buying an Apple II+, a machine that came with no software. Instead it came with thick instruction manuals that taught us how to write our own programs. You could take classes on "how to work your computer." Today, our two-year-olds are teaching themselves as these technology skills have gone viral. The idea of a computer class today is laughable, just as a reading class would have been laughable in 1776.

And just as "walking" or "talking" classes would be laughable to us today, so too should this whole nonsense of "reading" classes. Yet shockingly, we continue to go backwards with literacy to the point that most of us seem to think that it's necessary that children spend days and years of their lives at earlier and earlier ages, being drilled in a utilitarian skill that past generations just learned, virally, over the natural course of living their lives. No wonder children hate school. No wonder they are bored and stressed out.

Certainly, there are children in our world who are "at risk" for not learning to read, including those with actual learning disabilities, as opposed to the manufactured ones we are currently slapping on normal children who are simply taking a little longer to getting around to reading. And for those children, as well as for those who are being raised in illiterate households, intervention may be necessary. But for the overwhelming majority of our children, the greatest literacy challenge they face is our obsessive rush for more and more earlier and earlier. We are, in our abject ignorance, our refusal to actually look at the evidence, teaching our children to hate reading, which is in my view a crime not only against children, but against all humanity."
children  reading  play  literacy  pedagogy  teaching  schools  carolblack  unschooling  deschooling  play-basededucation  kindergarten  sfsh  history  gutenberg  thomaspayne  tomhobson  walking  howwelearn  necessity  coercion  learningdisabilities  talking  education 
july 2016 by robertogreco
Teacher Tom: Revolution
"We need a revolution in how we perceive children. They are not incomplete adults or empty vessels or anything less than full-fledged human beings with rights, including the right to be respected, heard, and responded to as fellow human beings and not inferior ones to be bossed around.

We need a revolution in how we view learning. It's not the job of adults to decide what and when children learn. That is the children's job. Our responsibility as adults is to role model our values in day to day life, strive to be the person we want our kids to grow up to be, take a genuine interest in what our children are excited about, and know that childhood exists, first and foremost, for play.

We need a revolution in how we view "stuff." I recently returned from China. In the US, we tend to think of "communist" China, but that somehow hasn't been an impediment to their decision-makers deciding that the nation should move toward a "consumer economy" more like those found in western societies. The thing is, the Chinese people apparently haven't been particularly accommodating. They don't seem overly interested in more stuff, they've learned to love what they already have, and it is putting the skids on their central plan. Yes, I'm sure part of that is generations of official education emphasizing that consumerism is an evil of the west, but it is noteworthy nevertheless. Many of the barriers to improving our educational system have to do with our consumption of stuff, the cars and houses and electronics and space we think we need. It makes us need two incomes and long work days. None of it is necessary, and probably detrimental, to a satisfying life.

We need a revolution against authoritarianism. Yes, I'm talking about politics, but also about day to day life. We must rise up against the entire concept of obedience. As Utah Phillips sang, "I will not obey." And then he sang, "But I'm always ready to agree." That is, at its heart, is what this revolution is about.

All of it is scary. Our revolution requires upending at least four sacred cows. All of it is daunting. This revolution requires generations of work. I used to be uncomfortable using the word revolution, but I've come to realize that human history is one of continual revolution, we're all a part of every one of them by either our actions or inactions. Revolution is the engine of progress and we are it's fuel. We either choose our revolution or it chooses us.

Of course, I hear you: all of this is well and good for some ivory tower blogger, but what about my kid, right now? This is where idealism meets reality. Public schools are looking increasingly like test score coal mines, private education is too much of a financial stretch for most of us, we love our kids with every ounce of our beings, and we want what's best for them. Something's got to give. Given reality, given our fears, given how daunting it is, what do we do? At bottom it's a question each of us can only answer for ourselves, but I think we make a mistake when we don't err on the side of revolution because in that direction lies the better future we want for those we love.

We must be firm, I think, in our defiance of standardization in our schools and specifically I'm talking about opting our children out of high stakes testing and home work. Be assured, high stakes testing and home work are not evidence-based aides to learning: indeed the evidence points to testing and homework mostly succeeding in making our children hate school even more. Your child is objectively more likely to grow into an avid, life-long learner if he is not subjected to high stakes testing and homework. The more of us who stand up for this, the more revolutionary it will be.

The second thing you can do for your child right now is talk to your friends and family. Talk to them about their own childhoods, ask them about their memories, revel in their stories about playing outdoors, unsupervised, with their friends and few toys. Share your own stories along with your concerns about today's children missing out on that. Revolutions must speak to the souls of every day people and I've found that there is no more direct way to get there than through connecting folks with their own childhoods.

Thirdly, we can all work on how we speak with the children in our lives, striving to avoid the directives of obedience, those commands like, "Come here" or "Sit down" or "Eat this" or "Stop it!" Better is to practice replacing those commands with informative statements, like "It's time to go" or "The people behind you can't see if you stand up" or "I don't want you to do that." Yes, it takes more words, but it is trading out commands for the space of simple truth in which children can practice thinking for themselves. A revolution will not be told what to do.

And finally, perhaps most difficult, and definitely most important is coming to appreciate the beauty of living with less. This would be the greatest revolution of all. The time it would give us as parents would set our children free.

The only thing we can do is to try. Just try. I give all my respect to each one of you who does. And ultimately this is the only way to guarantee that you will be doing the best you can to make a better future for your child. A revolution will never be a result of what you do, but it will always be a result of what we do. Everything is daunting if you feel you're going it on your own. If we all try at the same time, we cannot be stopped.

Our children love freedom and so do we."
tomhobson  children  youth  rights  2016  ageism  authoritarianism  politics  schooling  policy  china  us  consumerism  consumption  childhood  play  learning  unschooling  deschooling  education  standardization  testing  standardizedtesting  freedom  sfsh  high-stakestesting 
may 2016 by robertogreco
Teacher Tom: "You Want Mommy To Come Back"
"Sometimes mommy has to leave and you don't want her to leave. 

When I started teaching, I was a distractor. In fact, I considered myself a master distractor. I had every confidence that I could calm any kid down in less than five minutes through a combination of goofing, enthusiasm, and "Look what those kids are doing over there!" Today, I'm more inclined to simply sit with a crying child, to listen to any words they might be trying to say, to show warmth and empathy, to assure them that mommy always comes back, and to allow them the full arc of their strong emotion. Most kids still stop crying in less than five minutes, but that's no longer the goal now that my priority is their feelings rather than my discomfort with their feelings.

So when mommy left last Friday, when he reached out to mommy as she walked away, when he screamed and cried and pulled himself from my arms, when he dropped to the floor to kick his feet in outrage, I sat there with him, blocking out the whole world but him.

I could hear he was saying words as he screamed, but they weren't at first discernible, so I said, "You're mad that mommy left," and "You're sad that mommy left." No one can truly tell another how they feel, but I was pretty sure I was close to the mark in this case. He was still saying the words through his tears, repeating them. Finally, I thought I made out, "I want mommy to come back."

I wanted him to know that he had been heard, that I understood and empathized, and I wanted it to be something that was true, so I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

He shout-cried at me, "I want mommy to come back!"

I nodded. I worked on keeping my voice gentle. I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

And he said back, "I want mommy to come back!"

We went back and forth like this several times. He seemed to really wanted me to know that he wanted his mommy to come back.

Other children tried to sooth him: one girl brought him a costume, another tried to hand him a construction paper fire truck. He didn't accept their overtures, although he was by now present enough to shake his head "no" at them rather than simply scream as he was doing at me.

By now he was very clearly saying, "I want mommy to come back!" And I was replying, "I want your mommy to come back too," to which he always shout-cried back, "I want mommy to come back!"

I continued to attempt to put a name to his feelings, using words like "mad," "sad," and "angry," as well as to state the truth that "mommy always comes back." But whenever I said, "I want your mommy to come back too," he shouted at me, "I want mommy to come back!"

Then, finally, I really heard him. He said, "I want mommy to come back!" stressing the pronoun for his tin-eared teacher.

This time I answered, "You want mommy to come back."

He nodded as if to say, "Finally," and in one motion picked himself from the floor, stepped up to the art table, still crying, and got to work gluing construction paper shapes to a red fire truck pre-cut, his hands not fully under his own control. As he wadded and creased the paper, it looked almost as if he were wrestling with it, his fingers clenching and curling from the emotion that was still coursing through his whole body.

After a couple minutes, he became silent as he concentrated on manipulating the small pieces of paper, the last of his strong emotion going into this construction project.

I said one more time, "You want mommy to come back." This time he ignored me."
2015  tomhobson  teaching  howweteach  emotions  empathy  listening  learning  howwelearn  children  feelings 
march 2015 by robertogreco
Teacher Tom: "You Win!"
"A handful of kids have continued to experiment with using our planks as "diving boards" since coming up with the idea last week. As you may recall we broke one plank in the process. Well, we broke another this week, prompting us to agree that this probably wasn't the best use for our planks, but in the meantime, this happened . . .

D and G were taking turns on the diving board when Y arrived on the scene, picking up a bench and calling out, "Okay guys, who wants to play my game?"

D and G said they would, so he placed the bench, upside down, several feet away in the diving board landing zone. "The game is you have to jump onto this bench."


From where I stood, both literally and figuratively, I could see that this was a manifestly risky proposition. The bench was placed at the farthest point I'd seen any of the kids jump. It would require a supreme effort for anyone to launch themselves that far, making it nearly impossible to stick that particular landing, not to mention the fact that the bench, being upside down, was likely to tip over with the merest touch. It didn't take a catastrophic imagination to know that the first kid to try this was going to wind up landing hard on his or her back.

So here's the classic adult dilemma: could I trust the kids to make a similar assessment of the situation or should I step in with warnings, substituting my thought process for theirs? I've known D for a long time and he was the first one queued up for an attempt. He's physically competent, but no daredevil, and since thinking for ourselves is what school is all about, I decided to keep my mouth shut and give him the chance to think this through on his own.

D lined himself up for the attempt with G behind him, watching, awaiting her turn. He leapt high, but not far enough, landing solidly on the ground in front of the bench, which he slapped with the palm of his hand.

There was a moment of silence before Y, the games master, announced, "You win! You touched the bench. That means you get to go again."

G followed suit, also slapping the bench, also winning a second turn.

On a dime, without a word of disagreement, these three children had altered the game to fit the realities they discovered before them, an unspoken adjustment based upon their on-the-fly calculations about their capabilities, accommodating the realities of their risk assessments, and with a sharp regard for the feelings of one another. There was no debate. There was no attempt to urge anyone to go against their own best judgement. There was no shaming. There were no losers.

D and G took several more turns, each time being told, "You win!"

Then D tried something new. He again stuck his landing directly in front of the bench, but this time without slapping it. He stood for a moment staring at Y, not in a challenging way, but rather as if asking a question about the nature of their game. There was a pause as Y thought about his response, then he announced, "You still won! You could have touched the bench. That means you get to go again."

This is one of the primal driving forces behind free play, that is, play untainted by adult interference: the urge to keep the game going, bending and shaping the rules to suit the players, their judgements and their capabilities. This is what happens when the goal of the game isn't winning or losing, but rather playing the game. When left to their own devices, when left to think for themselves, these are the games children play."
teaching  parenting  play  children  games  learning  rules  fear  danger  safety  2014  tomhobson 
october 2014 by robertogreco
Teacher Tom: Equality Vs. Cruelty
"Yesterday, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a "major shift" in how the federal government evaluates the effectiveness of special education programs. And by that he means, subjecting special needs students to the same sort of high stakes "tough love" rigor that is already reducing young children across the country to tears and causing them to hate school. He said, "We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to robust curriculum, they excel." He is not just wrong, he is lying. He does not know this. No one knows this. There is no data, research, or other reliable evidence to back him up. As with the rest of the corporate education "reform" agenda, this assertion is pure guesswork based upon an ideology that asserts that unleashing "powerful market forces" of competition, standardization, and punishment and reward, will magically make everything better.

Duncan is using the logic of the spanker: If I hit the kid hard enough and often enough, he'll come to see the light. Never mind that there is no science behind this "logic," indeed, most researchers point to significant negative consequences from spanking, just as they point to significant negative consequences from the drill-and-kill of high stakes testing, rote learning, teachers separated from unemployment by one bad batch of blueberries, and schools closing, only to be replaced by unproven, often shoddy, corporate charter schools that have no problem toeing the line Duncan, Bill Gates and the rest of these bullies have drawn in the sand.

The sick part is that the guys behind this purport to be all about data. They are forever throwing out assertions that start, like Duncan's did, with the words "We know . . . ," but they simply do not know. They conflate knowing with believing. As a teacher, as a person who wants what's best for young children, I want to really know. I have my beliefs and ideas and ideologies like everyone else, but when it comes right down to it, what I do in the classroom is ultimately based upon what science tells us is best for children intellectually, emotionally, socially, and physically. Yet here are these guys with deep pockets and positions of great power who are worshipers at the alter of "free markets" (as if free markets have ever existed) hell bent on subjecting our children to the cruelty of competition, standardization, and punishment and reward, you know, for their own good, even if it robs them of their childhood and kills their joy of learning.

I've been struggling with this for some time. How can we get through to these guys? I started with the hope that they would respond to reason.

For instance, much of the rationale for this corporate "reform" push comes from the US's middling scores on the international PISA tests and the resulting fear that "the Chinese are beating us." Of course, Finland is beating us too, regularly joining the Chinese at the top of the charts. So why is it that these guys are seeking to emulate the Chinese model of romanticized suffering instead of the much more humane and effective methods of the Finns? They do this even as the communist dictatorship of China is backing away from its drill-and-kill methods in favor of "schools that follow sound education principles" and that "respect . . . students' physical and psychological development." Why are they ignoring the lessons of the democratic nation of Finland, a nation with a civic culture much more similar to the US, in favor of the admittedly failed methods of the dictatorial Chinese?

But reason is ineffective when it comes to ideologues.

This has been a frustrating thing for me these past several years as I've become increasingly involved in the pushback against those who would turn our schools into institutions of vocational training at the expense of everything else. The primary focus of the Finn's educational system is on equality, community, and citizenship, and that, after all, is the primary function of education in a democracy. The rest of their education success comes from that. And that is the sort of schools for which I am fighting.

Let corporations train their own damn workers. Our schools have more important work to do. And that, at bottom, is why I think these corporate "reformers" are so focused on creating Dickensian schools: they hope it results in the sorts of workers they are seeking to fill their cubicles. Fine. I'm an adult. I can chose to not take part, but forcing it on our children, even our children with special needs, that's pure cruelty, which sadly, seems to be the new American way.

I will be on the doorstep of the Gates Foundation this evening fighting for a different America, one based upon the democratic ideals of equality rather than the corporate ideology of cruelty."
tomhobson  gatesfoundation  arneduncan  rttt  education  edreform  schools  corporatism  billgates  pisa  us  policy  politics  training  democracy  criticalthinking  equality  community  civics  2014 
june 2014 by robertogreco
Teacher Tom: Figuring Out Those Damned ATMs
"We're so often amazed that kids figure out new technology faster and better than adults. Let me tell you why: because they play with it. In fact, that's why young children learn everything faster and better than adults. Play, not swiping fingers across screens, is what's in their DNA, it's in all of our DNA, but we've unlearned it as we've gotten older. We worry that we're going to break something or look foolish or somehow do it "wrong," so we resort to instruction manuals and tutorials and our kids to show us the way.

Why do we stop engaging new things through play as we get older? I don't know the full answer, but part it must lie in how we're taught to learn as we get older. In our society, the younger children are, the more likely it is that they are allowed the time and space to play, to explore, to discover, to make mistakes, both inside and outside the classroom. This is why most young kids tell us they like school: learning is pleasurable, exciting, and interesting when we pursue it though play. Yet as we get older, the opportunities to play become increasingly rare until by the time we hit middle school, it's pretty much all about instruction manuals and tutorials and getting the "right" answer. That's why in traditional schools, the older kids get, the more likely they are to report they hate school.

The fact that young children "take to" screen-based technology shouldn't surprise us. They also take to rocks and sticks and cardboard boxes and water and other people. We're not so impressed by that, however, because we too have mastered those things, years ago, as we freely played.

Education "reformers" have it backwards. They look at middle schools and high schools and see children struggling, hating school, so they are seeking to make our preschools and elementary schools more like middle school and high school to get them "ready." It should be the other way around: we should be trying to make the middle school and high school experience more like what we find in early years. It's not our job to make kids school ready, it's our job to make schools ready for kids. If we do that, I'll bet we'll find that even adults can figure out those damned ATMs."
2014  tomhobson  edtech  technology  education  schools  unschooling  deschooling  howweteach  play  howwelearn  learning  children  digitalnatives  middleschool  highschool  cv  school  schooling  schooliness  edreform  preschool 
june 2014 by robertogreco

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